SANTA MONICA – A brief interlude today in our on-going series of chats with “Birdman” star Michael Keaton. An interesting note in his filmography is the handful of journalism films he has under his belt. Between Ron Howard's “The Paper,” HBO's “Live from Baghdad” and the upcoming “Spotlight” from director Tom McCarthy, Keaton has seen his share of journalist characters. And it's something he's been fascinated by since he was a young man trying to find his way.
Indeed, follow him on Instagram and you're not going to be confronted by a bunch of selfies from his life on the circuit. You'll see snapshot after snapshot of newspaper stories that he devours every morning while kicking back at the coffee shop we're meeting the a day before he'll get the news that he has landed his first Oscar nomination.
It seemed an interesting sidebar so I pursued it. Read through the back and forth below as we discuss his trepidation in playing real-life characters, his first brush with covering an event from the trenches as a doe-eyed college kid and his upcoming role in McCarthy's film.
“Birdman” was nominated for nine Academy Awards including Best Actor. The film hits DVD/Blu-ray on Feb. 17.
HitFix: How long have you been coming to this spot?
Michael Keaton: I kind of lay low. It's where I read my paper every morning, for years, many, many years.
Yeah, I noticed on Instagram you're always Tweeting a picture of the paper or something you might read.
It's easier than saying “go do this” or “here's what I think about this.” I think it probably annoys some people. I don't mean to be preacher-y but people need to know certain things, I think.
I wasn't aware of how much of a voracious newspaper reader you were.
Yeah, I read two a day. If I'm on the road I'll try to read the local paper, whatever city I'm in, and then The New York Times. I love newspapers.
What's a favorite local paper out there?
You know, my friends tell me – my writer friends, my novelist/journalist friends – tell me the Miami Herald is actually a good paper, which I never knew. But I'm seldom there for more than a day. I'll always read the Pittsburgh paper if I'm there. I used to get that online. I think San Francisco's paper is good.
I went to grad school for journalism at USC here. The LA Times is kind of like the Trojan mafia. Lots of USC people in there. Or at least it was like that for a long time.
Really? I didn't know that. Hey, did you know that – did we talk about this, given that you're a journalist, that I just did this movie called “Spotlight?” Did we talk about that?
I play Walter Robinson, “Robby” Robinson. He called himself a player/coach but he was essentially the editor of the kind of Metro section of the Boston Globe called Spotlight. They all won a Pulitzer. They uncovered the Cardinal Law Catholic Church abuse scandal and exposed that.
Yeah, that kind of brings up something I wanted to talk about, which is, you know, “The Paper,” “Live from Baghdad,” now “Spotlight.” Is that something you're interested in, stories about journalism?
Yeah. A lot. I really liked journalism [in college] and I thought about that for a minute. And in fact, I had attended a few different anti-war, kind of pro-environment things. I was a speech student, which was just vague enough to give me some time to figure it out. I didn't know what I was going to do. And I went down and I thought I'm going to take a little pen and paper. And I don't know, I had the instinct to journalize it. I hitchhiked down to one of them in DC and I was down there by myself. Back then there was like this network [of people to coordinate something like that]. There was a radical old woman from Atlanta. She was like 80. And she had gotten an old house in DC and was putting up demonstrators from all over the world, students, and that would be a place you could crash for the night.
Anyway, I remember I came around this corner and I had my notepad out and it was really, like, all of a sudden everything stopped, because you could hear people being chased around on the streets, but far away. I was totally alone. I came around the corner of this street and I go down and also alone turning the corner on the opposite end of the block and coming toward me was a National Guard guy with a gun, helmet, you know, full gear, full battalion gear. And he stopped and looked at me and, frankly quite nicely, he looked at me dead in the eye and said, “Leave,” or, “Get out of here,” or something like that. I remember the clarity of how he said it. And I went, “OK,” turned and walked the other way. There was no reason to say anything to him. He was doing his job. He wasn't really being mean about it; he was just doing it, but he was very clear and stern about what I was supposed to do.
That's interesting. Your first brush. I love journalism movies, “All the President's Men,” “The Insider.” Did you see “Nightcrawler” yet”
No. I really want to see “Nightcrawler.”
It's so good.
That's what I hear.
And then a movie like “The Paper,” even though it's comedic, it definitely gets it. It gets the heart of what that profession is trying to be.
All you guys love that movie. I hear that from more journalists. They really thought it was fairly accurate and they really liked it. And “Live From Baghdad” was really great.
I just watched it again recently. You play CNN producer Robert Wiener in that. I don't think you've played real people too often. Is that something that you had any trepidation about? Taking on a real guy? Or do you feel that way in general?
I do. I do have trepidation about it because I find it hard. “Robby” Robinson, we got to be friends. And first of all, Wiener, I look nothing like Wiener. I kind of sound nothing like Wiener. I liked him, but I don't think there's much that we have in common. I went to talk to him when he was living on a barge. I think he still lives on the Seine in Paris with his wife and I think his kid, which I thought was pretty cool. I hung out with him there and just asked him a bunch of stuff and we communicated. But you feel a responsibility and it's that tricky thing where, like, with Robby, we immediately hit it off and we are remarkably similar in a lot of ways in kind of how we think about things and our take on stuff. And he's very subtle. He's cagey. He gets stuff without people knowing he's really getting stuff. There was a lot about his personality I found really interesting.
I do have trepidation when I play people, though. “The Paper,” he was a created a character. But he was actually loosely based on Mike McAlary, the guy who passed away from the Daily News. [Tom] Hanks played him on Broadway [in “Lucky Guy”]. It was loosely based on that type of a guy and I hung out with him. Walter, it's not like I do an impersonation of him – except I did when I had some physical things, because how he carries himself, sometimes physically what he does kind of dictates how he gets what he gets. I can't quite explain it, but if it didn't I probably wouldn't have bothered. And also, it's so un-“Birdman.” Like, there's no real giant, high energy thing. In fact he's kind of a quiet, slow-moving kind of guy to some degree, until he really gets going on something and then I'm told you cannot get him off of it. He's very powerful and very direct but until he reaches that point, he's a really pretty easy-going guy, but very cagey about how he gets information. Not in a bad way, in a really cool way, like a bird dog. So I kind of had mannerisms I observed. But I always dreaded having to do a Boston accent, because I don't find them easy and also they change neighborhood to neighborhood. We're similar in that he's curious about a lot of different stratas of society and he's pretty good at moving in a lot of different circles.
Yeah. But even in his personality, when he's not doing his job, he's very bright. His education wasn't anything outstanding. He'll be the first one to tell you that. He's a veteran, an Army veteran. He moves from class to class real easily. He was a working class kid and went to a Catholic school and is connected to Catholic school enough, but not really, like, locked in that deeply. And so I really found that interesting. So his accent, I was told by Tom [McCarthy] and the other guys, he told them that's one reason he just doesn't really have one. But he will fall into one when he's around people from his neighborhood or other neighborhoods. But then his r's get hard and he does “ing” and sometimes he doesn't do “ing.” So when I saw that I thought, “Oh, shoot, now how do I determine when he's speaking with a Boston accent and when he's not?” So little things like that were hard. But basically what you want to do is be true to the guy, and I don't mean protect him, I just mean be who they are, you know? Not try to make them nicer than they are or anything. You know what I mean?
And I guess it's because I'm lazy that I think, “Oh, shoot, here we go. Now I got to do the work. I wish this was going to be easier than I thought.”
That's got to be fun, too, though.
Tomorrow: Tim Burton, “Beetlejuice” and it's long delayed sequel and Bat-mania.
Michael Keaton will receive a career tribute and the Modern Master Award at the 30th annual Santa Barbara Film Festival on Saturday, Jan. 31.